Remote Retrospectives

Retros at JUST EAT

Here at JUST EAT, our technical teams are split across three locations: Bristol, Kiev and London. Often, we work with remote colleagues either as part of an ongoing project, or for a short standalone period of time. Within our agile teams, we regularly run retrospectives as a way of inspecting what we’ve done over the past few weeks, in the hope of adapting for the better.
For the past 6 months, I’ve been working with our Payments team, helping them to facilitate their retros. Retros are held every 3 weeks, and I’ve been using some of my own ideas, plus information from other sources such as Retromat. Recently we have gained two new team members, who are based in Kiev. Unfortunately we do not have the ability to fly everyone to the same location for retros, so I’ve been doing some thinking about how we can integrate remote participants in retrospectives. I’ve facilitated a lot of retros over the course of my career, and I’ve had the opportunity to work with and learn from some awesome people, so I thought I would gather all the things I’ve learned into one place.

Learnings from Remote Retros

Always defer to the remote party
If the majority of the team is in one room with remote participants, I like to have a rule which is that everyone defers to the remote participants. When you’re remote in this situation, it’s often difficult to know when someone has finished speaking, especially when you cannot see their facial expressions. Often, there is a time lag on communications with remote participants, so even by the time they perceive someone has finished speaking, and they begin, it’s likely that someone locally has already begun speaking – leading to what I call Remote Comms Kerfuffle (RCK). With the rule in place, the second you hear even a crackle from the remote participants, everyone in the room shuts up and listens. It’s not perfect, but it definitely helps.
Remote facilitator
I read an article a while back (Strong and Agile) “To be more in tune with communication issues, the facilitator could sit in a room on their own and connect to the session. When the session is running they will then be experience first hand the difficulties that each of the rooms are having which would be less obvious if located in one of the team rooms. This will help the facilitator ask the right questions to stabilise the session.” I thought this was a brilliant idea, so gave it a try a while back. Immediately I was able to see that the people sitting at the back of the room were inaudible, and the remote participants were only getting half the conversation. A quick rearrange of the microphone, and things were much clearer. Next I found how difficult it was to interject the conversation in a way that didn’t make me feel silly, RCK ensued and we wasted time apologising to each other, and then pausing, and then having more RCK. Hence the rule above!
Increase the timeframe
Often, with remote participants, retros take longer, and this needs to be factored in. There’s the initial connection time (at least 5 minutes at the beginning of the retro to battle with technology in whichever meeting room), then there’s the additional time for resulting RCK (which will most likely always happen to some degree). I tend to add on 15 minutes to retro time to cater for remote participants, though once you get into a regular pattern of remote retrospectives, this can be reduced.
Prep the team
When we have remote participants, it can be harder for them to grasp the activities we are trying to run through, and they may not have time to ask questions. The day before each retro, I tend to send an email to the remote participants, explaining the activities, ensuring they have the right materials (if needed) and asking them if they have any questions. This means we can be prepared ahead of time, and don’t have to factor this additional communication into the retro time.
Shared tools
Google docs are really useful as the real time updates are easy to see. I recently found this tool, which I think could be very useful: I usually have a rule of no electronic devices in retros, however – in this case we would need people to bring and use laptops for a portion of the retro, to create cards etc. Essentially, traditional retro materials (post its, whiteboards) will not translate well. You could ask one of the remote team members to organise materials in the remote location, but generally the whole “webcam pointed at a whiteboard” approach has not worked out well for me in the past.
Include the remote people
It’s always easy to forget the remote people during retros, so we all (especially the facilitator) need to be sure we encourage the remote people to speak up. If it’s been a while since they have spoken – it can help to ask them by name for their opinion on the subject being discussed.
Thanks for reading
~ Beccy